Yasujiro Ozu’s 1947 film, Record of a Tenement Gentleman, is a quiet film, one that ever so slowly creeps up on you with meaning and import addressed so obliquely and in such a mannered and restrained way that you hardly notice as you witness events that add up to something much more than just a cranky old woman taking care of a homeless child. This film is about war and its after-effects, not so much measured by buildings reduced to rubble or the pocked, burned landscapes of bygone battles, but by the hardness forced on men and women who survive the carnage and are left lost and empty.
This snapshot of Japan takes place soon after World War II. A moon-faced young boy named Kohei is brought to an old woman, Tane, by one of her neighbors. The boy was found wandering in a village, apparently abandoned. When the boy is rejected by others living in the house, Tane reluctantly agrees to watch him for a night. One can tell she’s been alone her whole life; her neighbors are her closest companions. She shows the stiff nervousness of one who has not entertained too many overnight guests. The boy is shy and scared, the woman, tough and stern.
The boy gets things off on the wrong foot by pissing the bed, giving Tane a good excuse to drop him off in the village where he was found. She takes him there, and finds the place where the boy and his father had lived before his father supposedly abandoned him. It’s sad and funny when Tane tells the boy to collect seashells while she attempts to run away from him. It doesn’t work. He runs after her. Your heart nearly breaks watching the boy trying to catch up to her.
There are many such moments in the film, so rich with truth and humanity, understated and delicate.
As you might have assumed, the old woman eventually takes a liking to the boy. But there are none of the maudlin excesses a less-talented director would insert here. It’s all hope and change now for Tane, and taking in this lost soul has mended her. Ozu makes it clear that her friends and neighbors and countrymen must do the same.
Record of a Tenement Gentleman plays at Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, April 12, at 7:30 p.m. For more information call 313-833-3237.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].